The 1950s, the CIA, the hookers it hired, and the LSD they dispensed to johns — a true story. That’s a heck of a pitch for anything, especially in the world of web video, which rarely trips into decades past.
Independent production company Strange Science LLC stumbled across the story of Operation Midnight Climax while writer Ramesh Thadani and director Zach Jordan were working at Videojug.com, where they were asked to research conspiracies for a potential video piece. There’s a full write-up on the operation at Wikipedia, but the Cliff’s Notes version is this — during the 1950s, as part of their experimentation with LSD and other mind-altering substances, the CIA hired prostitutes to dose their customers with drugs so that agents could observe the effects via two-way mirror.
Climax adds an element of fiction by depicting one of these brothels, run by Millie (Meredith Salenger, best known as Natty Gann from The Journey of Natty Gann), and its regulars, who have no idea that they’ve just become the subjects of a government trial in mind control. By putting the premise out front and center in a nicely rendered opening sequence, there’s minimal suspense in the first two episodes, which are mostly about the set-up of the experiment.
Instead, these episodes are more character study than narrative, establishing relationships and providing glimpses of backstory. So far, the most intriguing is that of the well-read African-American prostitute Bea (Vernetra Gavin), for whom turning tricks is a more dignified profession than any other career option available to her during that time period.
It’s a choice that plays well with the show’s deliberate pacing, which is just one of the ways the creators have managed to invoke the era they’re depicting. Anyone who’s ever tried to recreate a time period on a limited budget knows what a challenge it can be, but Strange Science produced the first three episodes for a cost somewhere “in the mid-four-figures,” according to Producer and Director of Photography Glenn Sauber.
It helps that the series is largely limited to one or two locations. The biggest expense was set construction, which pays off on-screen — the 1950s decor of the brothel is a huge factor in selling the show’s place in time. “We’re trying to find the fine line between impressing people by what we can do for so little and telling producers that we’ll work for nothing,” said Sauber.
Climax’s dialogue occasionally leans too heavily on the appropriation of 50s slang, but the lush, sepia-tinged cinematography alone is a draw, darting between a classic film noir look, the paranoia-inspiring perspective of the ever-watching CIA, and the actual drug-enduced hallucinations the men experience. Right now, the only thing missing is a stronger narrative arc, but it’s hard to blame Climax for that, given how it’s not even clear what exactly the CIA was hoping to learn from these experiments. The fact that they existed at all is drama enough, I suppose. It’s a little depressing to realize that the idea of our government experimenting on its citizens isn’t as shocking as it once was.